Two concepts of freedom
Two concepts of freedom

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Two concepts of freedom

3.5 The notion of a final solution

Motivating much of Berlin's essay on the two concepts of liberty is a pair of related beliefs. First he believes that the notion of a so-called ‘final solution’, the belief that ultimately all human differences of goal can be reconciled, has led to terrible consequences, often to atrocities. Secondly, he believes that there is not, in principle, any way of resolving the widely different goals that human beings have. There can, then, be no simple panacea to cure all the problems that arise as a result of conflicting aims. This second belief goes some way to explaining why we place such a high value on negative freedom.

Here is his account of the consequences of attempting a final solution (a term which he presumably chose for its emotive force given that it is the term which is usually used for Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jewish people):

One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals – justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another…

It is a commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organisation nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez-faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society, can conflict violently with each other. And it is no great way from that to the generalisation that not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind. But somewhere, we shall be told and in some way, it must be possible for all these values to live together, for unless this is so, the universe is not a cosmos, not a harmony; unless this is so, conflicts of value may be an intrinsic irremovable element in human life. To admit that the fulfilment of some of our ideals may in principle make the fulfilment of others impossible is to say that the notion of total human fulfilment is a formal contradiction, a metaphysical chimera.

(Berlin, op. cit., pp. 167–8)

The central point here, like the argument about past misuses of the notion of positive liberty discussed in Section 3.4, is a historical claim, a pessimistic one. Berlin is saying that historically the belief in a ‘final solution’, a way of harmonising all the different goals that human beings have, has had disastrous consequences for those whose goals don't happen to have fitted neatly into the master plan.

However, towards the end of this quotation he introduces a different idea, namely that the different goals may in principle be irreconcilable: perhaps there just can't be a way of harmonising all the different goals (such as justice, equality and the cultivation of geniuses), that people have and do consider worthwhile. If this thesis is true, then it follows that ‘the notion of total human fulfilment is a formal contradiction’.

What this means is that the notion of total human fulfilment embodies an unachievable goal. If it is a necessary feature of human goals that they can't all simultaneously be achieved, then it follows that any theory that says they can is self-contradictory: it will end up implying both that human goals cannot all be fulfilled and that they can, which is a logical absurdity. In other words, Berlin is suggesting that the notion of human goals carries within it the implication that not all human goals can be fulfilled. But what is his evidence for this pessimistic conclusion?

He considers two possibilities: first that there might be some a priori guarantee of the notion that the goals different people have can actually be harmonised. By ‘a priori guarantee’ he means an argument that doesn't rely on empirical observation, but rather provides a logically secure proof of the point independently of any evidence. We can, for instance, know that all aardvarks are animals independently of conducting any experiments on actual aardvarks; this is because it is true by definition that all aardvarks are animals. You can know a priori that if you have in your sack something that isn't an animal, then it certainly isn't an aardvark. So, returning to Berlin's discussion: he suggests that there is no a priori guarantee that human goals can all in fact be achieved. He assumes this, rather than providing any argument to show that it is true. If we accept this point (which is reasonable enough since it is unclear how we could know a priori that all human goals could in principle be harmonised), we must fall back on observation. Do we, then, have any empirical evidence that all human goals might in fact be fulfilled? Or, to put it another way, has human history provided us with any evidence that would suggest the fundamental compatibility of the diverse goals that different human beings seek and value? Berlin's answer to these questions is a straight ‘No’:

But if we are not armed with an a priori guarantee of the proposition that a total harmony of true values is somewhere to be found – perhaps in some ideal realm the characteristics of which we can, in our finite state, not so much as conceive – we must fall back on the ordinary resources of empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge. And these certainly give us no warrant for supposing (or even understanding what would be meant by saying) that all good things, or all bad things for that matter, are reconcilable with each other. The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others. Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value upon the freedom to choose; for if they had assurance that in some perfect state, realisable by men on earth, no ends pursued by them would ever be in conflict, the necessity and agony of choice would disappear, and with it the central importance of the freedom to choose. Any method of bringing this final state nearer would then seem fully justified, no matter how much freedom were sacrificed to forward its advance. It is, I have no doubt some such dogmatic certainty that has been responsible for the deep, serene, unshakeable conviction in the minds of some of the most merciless tyrants and persecutors in history that what they did was fully justified by its purpose. I do not say that the ideal of self-perfection – whether for individuals or nations or churches or classes – is to be condemned in itself, or that the language which was used in its defence was in all cases the result of a confused or fraudulent use of words, or of moral or intellectual perversity. Indeed, I have tried to show that it is the notion of freedom in its ‘positive’ sense that is at the heart of the demands for national or social self-direction which animate the most powerful and morally just public movements of our time, and that not to recognise this is to misunderstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age. But equally it seems to me that the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all the diverse ends of men can be harmoniously realised is demonstrably false. If, as I believe, the ends of men are many and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict – and of tragedy – can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition.

(Ibid., pp. 168–9)

If Berlin is right that it is a fundamental and inescapable feature of being human that we have to choose between incompatible alternatives (both as individuals and as members of a society), in a sense creating ourselves through our choices, then this helps to explain why freedom is so important to us. It is through our freely made choices that we make ourselves what we are, whether as individuals or societies. If there were some true ‘final solution’, then it wouldn't matter whether we made the choices, or someone else made the right ones for us: one simple concept of positive freedom would be sufficient, and coercion might be justified on the basis of it. But, since, as Berlin believes, no final solution is in principle ever going to harmonise the different aims that human beings have, and since there are numerous incompatible, worthwhile ways of living (a view sometimes known as pluralism), a combination of negative and positive freedom is a precondition of a satisfactory life. Take away the guarantee of some basic negative freedoms for all adults, and the result will be misery for those whose aims in life do not conveniently harmonise with the dominant view in that society.


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